Monday, April 24, 2006

The Da Vinci Code and Company

A few evenings ago I slipped down to Barnes & Noble, and spent an hour going through the religion shelves looking for books that are riding the rapidly rising Da Vinci Wave. I ended up with nine or ten volumes that I spread out on a table in the Starbucks section of the place and perused. I finally chose three or four to read and returned the other volumes to their shelves.

The last few days have found me going over these books in an attempt to get to the bottom of the Da Vinci Code phenomenon that has been riding high now for several years, and which is reaching something of a fever peak as the relase date for the move of the best-seller draws near. The hardback of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown has now been on the New York Times Best Seller list for 159 weeks, and this week was its second week on the top of the paperback lists. There is now an illustrated Da Vinci Code, Da Vinci Code tour guides, and I expect all sorts of other ephemera will appear in coming months. This has become a big cultural "event."

Maybe it was fitting that I read The Da Vinci Code soon after it was published, on my way home from Minneapolis in July 2003, where I had been addressing a pre-convention gathering. (Needless to say, I have not be invited to speak at any gatherings in Columbus in June, and probably never will be again!). The book was commended to me be someone as a great read, and so it is. If you are looking for a page-turner, then this is it! However, from the supposed factoids on the first page, I was irritated by the way it played so fast and loose with facts, and was so badly researched.

Don't get me wrong, The Da Vinci Code is a terrific yarn, my problem was that its author seemed unable to separate fact from fiction -- which makes him a very contemporary kind of person! The book leans heavily on Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which when I read it some years ago struck me as a puzzling piece of pseudo-religious exotica, a book that seemed determined to make a massive case with a minimal amount of evidence. The Da Vinci Code is very much the same in its use of facts, scholarship, and evidence.

This week's New York Times Best Seller list has no fewer than three of these kinds of books on the non-fiction lists, and then The Da Vinci Code is there in the fiction lists. One of those non-fiction pieces is The Jesus Papers, written by Michael Baigent, one of the co-authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail. He and his colleagues recently challenged Dan Brown in the British court system for plaigerizing. They lost their case, but gathered huge amounts of publicity, which translated into book sales, and in the midst of it out comes this latest offering that is sub-titled, Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History. Coincidence?

There seems to be a cycle of these kinds of books. Every few years out comes another little batch filled with what purports to be 'new evidence' that Jesus did not die, Jesus did not rise, Jesus did not exist, Jesus married Mary Magdalene, or whatever the latest flavor of the month might be. With some of his own flourishes, Michael Baigent actually warms over and adapts the arguments of Hugh Schonfield, whose book, The Passover Plot, was published while I was in seminary -- and I remember clearly the delight I had in watching Michael Green, who taught me New Testament, using careful scholarship to demolish it and show was a shallow piece of work it was.

Well, just like alien space craft crashing near Roswell, NM, or extra-terrestrial research taking place at Area 51, there are some bad ideas that never die. Indeed, what Baigent and, earlier, Schonfield mostly do is re-present notions that have been around for at least 1900 years and regularly come up for air. Baigent writes well, and some of the things he asserts are fascinating, but the book is a little bit like attempting to make a fine Persian rug with colored grasses!

What fascinates me about all these kinds of books is that there are extraordinary juxtapositionings of ideas, facts, half-facts, and fictions, and then they are all tied together and something is made of them. Furthermore, they read like papers I wrote when a student, where I would attempt to make a huge case with very, very limited information. For a time, I thought I was a master at making one or two pertinent points stretch for ten pages, until a professor called my bluff and threw the paper back with a failing grade. At that point the penny dropped, if I was going to write something with substance I needed to do the requisite research and preparation.

As I read Baigent, I find that he doesn't stack up well against the great New Testament and Church History scholars whose work I have delighted in over the years: Oscar Cullmann, Joachim Jeremias, Tom Wright, Leon Morris, E. Earle Ellis, Howard Marshall, William Barclay, C. H. Dodd, Charlie Moule, and so many others. Reading his stuff is like watching a club golfer trying to make his way in an Open Championship at St. Andrew's. He might get some good shots off here and there, but he is no match for the real pros.

Again, as I read Baigent, I found my own brain putting some interesting connections together. There is a flavor about his writing that seemed to ring bells with me and I found myself asking where I had read material presented in this kind of way before. Finally, I realized that there seemed to be an affinity between Baigent and the way that John Shelby Spong writes. A pleasing style takes limited scholarship, evidence, and facts, and somehow manages to weave something interesting but highly questionable out of it.

The problem with The Da Vinci Code and its flotilla of other products is that these things get the kind of marketing that rebuttals will never get. Tom Hanks playing the lead role in the movie of The Da Vinci Code is going to be heard and believed by far more people than the attractive written response of a Lee Strobel (which I would thoroughly recommend).

People have always loved stories, and what these detractors from Gospel truth have done is to hijack the story and make it their tool for presenting their question mark that they want to raise over the Christian faith as it has been revealed. Somehow or other, in this age when narrative and illustration goes far further than careful argument, we have to learn how to repossess the form of the story so that it grabs the attention of those who are seeking after truth, much as Jesus's parables did for his followers two thousand years ago.

This is the point where scholarship, faithfulness, artistry, media talent, and resources intersect. It is not that the church does not have access to these (although perhaps not the financial resources that are available to Hollywood, etc.), but it does have an abiding story that when artistically presented catches imaginations. I find myself wondering whether it is an accident that this latest surge of pseudo-scholarly attacks on the faith come three or four years after "The Passion of the Christ" was in the cinemas, or maybe I am paranoid.

Yes, it is important that we challenge with evidence these cases which are made with such slender evidence, but it is also important that somehow we find a way to winsomely and wonderfully present the alternative case.

The other day a friend suggested I look at the Author's Note at the end of Anne Rice's Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. Anne Rice is not a writer I have taken a lot of interest in, but at my friend's urging I got the book and found myself fascinated, for here is a novelist who really understands the importance of careful, methodical research and scholarship. In this afterword she tells of her journey from old-fashioned Roman Catholicism, through atheism, and back to the Christian faith.

As she had prepared to write this book she had expected that she would find fellow travellers among the more skeptical writers and scholars who have flourished since the Enlightenment, "and that Christianity was, at heart, a kind of fraud" (Page 312). She goes on, "In sum, the whole case for the nondivine Jesus who stumbled into Jerusalem and somehow got crucified by nobody and had nothing to do with the founding of Christianity and would be horrified by it if he knew about it -- that whol picture which had floated in the liberal circles I frequented as an atheist for thirty years -- that case was not made. Not only was it not made, I discovered in this field some of the worst and most biased scholarship I'd ever read."

Her assessment becomes even more tart: "I was unconvinced by the wild postulations of those who claimed to be children of the Enlightenment. And I had also sensed something else. Many of these scholars, scholars who apparently devoted their lives to New Testament scholarship, disliked Jesus Christ. Some pitied him as a hopeless failure. Others sneered at him, and some felt an outright contempt. This came between the lines of the books. This emerged in the personality of the texts" (Page 314).

I, too, sense that there is this dislike of Jesus in certain corners of the church, but that dislike turns to something stronger in the writing of a Dan Brown, a Michael Baigent, and others. All this means that those of us who love Jesus with heart, soul, mind, and strength, have our work cut out.

1 comment:

Craig Goodrich said...

Well, a book has just been published by someone who may or may not love Jesus, but clearly detests bad scholarship combined with a terrible writing style.

Check out The Baloney Code -- a freebie first chapter is here.

Given the sorry state of contemporary American culture, this book may do more to discredit Brown than all the serious and learned refutations of his nonsense that have appeared...